Monday, July 31, 2006

Historic Preservation--Boon or Bane?

A seemingly perennial agenda item at the East Central Civic Association (ECCA) meetings is whether the current Shaw Historic District should be extended to include areas east of 7th Street and north of the Mount Vernon Historic District. This doesn’t ever seem to get decided, and I’m not sure if anyone even knows how it would be decided. But a very nice and very patient lady from the DC Historic Preservation Office is always there to answer questions. An exhaustive survey of the area has already been completed and is full of interesting historical nuggets for those so inclined.

The issue seems to boil down to this: Do the aesthetic benefits of the restrictions imposed by designation as a historic district outweigh the additional costs and encumbrances imposed on property owners? Like most such questions, the answer depends on where you are coming from.

But a lot also depends on how rigidly or capriciously the guidelines are applied by the review board. Say your historic windows leak like a sieve and you want to replace them with modern double-glazed windows that don’t look exactly like the old ones but would cut down on energy costs and keep your house more comfortable. Can the Historic Preservation board keep you from doing that, or make it so expensive you just can’t afford it? From what I hear from folks in the present Shaw Historic District, the answer would be “yes, they can.”

Would historic designation help force the owner of a crumbling shell of a house on my block to either renovate it or sell it to someone who will? The Historic Preservation people say yes, but I’m skeptical because it doesn’t seem to have had that effect on similar properties that are in the existing historic district.

I’m pretty sure that my building wouldn’t have been approved by Historical Preservation review, even though the 19th Century façade is essentially intact. I’m certain that the new Bauhaus-style building at 5th and O, or the stunning (and stunningly expensive) 2-unit condo at 5th and Q would not have made the cut.

I certainly see the value of preserving the essential look of Shaw’s existing housing, which is a big part of what drew many of us to the neighborhood in the first place. As a historian by training, I appreciate the value of keeping vintage buildings intact even when individual houses may not have any special aesthetic or historic qualities.

But if historic designation means additional red tape and expense for any home owner who wants to change a door or window or repaint the front of their house another color, then I have problems. If it adds significant costs to someone who wants to renovate and make habitable any of the many derelict properties in the area, then I have more problems. As usual, the devil is in the details.

I guess I’d like to know what residents of existing historic districts have experienced, but if I had to vote today, I’d probably vote ‘no’.

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